Tips to screw your crush, not the planet
We talk about having an eco lifestyle but rarely do we talk about having an eco sexlife. Dive in for tips about how to have more sustainable sex!
by Abi Larner
CW: Sex (obviously), racism, reproductive and contraceptive coercion, and rape.
As humans, we’re amongst the most sexually active species on the planet. This is, for the most part, a good thing: for many of us, sex is an important aspect of our social lives, and both solo and partnered play can do wonders for our mental and physical health. But this abundance of sexual activity not only means that we have the highest STD infection rate of all primates, it also racks up a high ecological footprint.
Throughout this guide I’ll take you through some tips, tricks, and research titbits offering insight into the decisions we make about sex from the moment we wake to the moment we mate. To keep it simple, and so that you can easily identify what might, and might not, work for you, each section is scored on environmental sustainability, but also practicality and affordability. Unfortunately I couldn’t possibly capture the wide array of kinky things we get up to as a species, so this guide is designed to cover just the basics.
Part 1: Contraception
Did you know that just under half of pregnancies worldwide are unexpected? The precise number is 48%, which makes contraception a pretty big consideration if you engage in p-in-v
sex. Figuring out that condom wrappers generate more landfill waste than the implant is straightforward enough, but analysing which method is best overall gets a lot trickier: which method produces the least side-effects? Do artificial hormones have a long-term effect on the planet? What about efficacy?
'Figuring out what works for you is tricky enough (...) without also trying to factor the planet into the equation.'
Figuring out what works for you is tricky enough (hint: the answer isn’t likely to be fixed), without also trying to factor the planet into the equation. That 99% effective pill efficacy rate was measured in a controlled environment (read: not real life), condoms split and sometimes even your most trusted method of contraception can leave one of you peeing anxiously on a stick.
With all of that in mind, where do you even begin?
Condoms: Unless you really weren’t paying attention in Sex-Ed, you’ll know that condoms are single-use only. Naturally, this makes a lot of people question whether they’re detrimental to the environment, but I’ve also unfortunately come across a fair share of people who suddenly decide to care about landfills when it becomes a convenient excuse to pressure someone out of using a condom. Not cool. In light of people using ‘eco-sustainability’ as an excuse to be (unprotected) dicks, let’s get one thing straight: latex condoms are biodegradable. I get that condoms aren’t everyone’s favourite option, but they’re a damn sight better than routine pregnancy or STI scares. To cover your bases, make sure they have a kitemark: a quality assurance certification tested by a body other than the manufacturer. If you are in the UK, the two to look out for are the BSI Kitemark, and the European CE mark (see below).
Sustainability: 5/10. Polyurethane options made from plastic won’t decompose, but latex and lambskin ones will. Packaging tends to be a problem, but biodegradable options are increasingly available.
Practicality: 9/10. Even if you don’t like condoms, you can’t deny that they are excellent multi-taskers: they protect against pregnancy, STIs, and are available pretty much anywhere. I’ve awarded them bonus points because asking a prospective partner if they will wear one is a reliable litmus test for weeding idiots out of your life, and they also don’t have any hormonal side-effects.
Affordability: 9/10. Free from the GP, Gum Clinics, and lots of other places. You can also buy them over the counter, and prices vary wildly.
'...many women find that the pill can wreak havoc on their emotional and physical health.'
The Pill: Ah, the pill. It grew out of research designed to further industrial cattle farming, and it’s still only available for use by the female half of the population. Lovely. Some advocates encourage not taking breaks between packs as a way to avoid periods and minimise the amount of sanitary waste which ends up in landfills, but the jury is still out as to whether or not that’s a healthy option in the long term. It’s also important to mention that many women find that the pill can wreak havoc on their emotional and physical health. Also, here’s something really important I had to learn the hard way: antibiotics can massively interfere with the efficacy of the pill (read: stop it from working entirely). If you’ve taken a course of antibiotics this cycle, best to wear a condom. Other things to stay clear of include St John’s Wort and certain medications including antacids and proton-pump inhibitors (like omeprazole).
Sustainability: 6/10. Monthly, instead of daily, packaging, but the ecological footprint of synthetic hormones is still poorly understood.
Practicality: 5/10. It’s nice to not have to worry about having a condom on you in the heat of the moment, but some forget to take the pill at the right time every day. You will need a prescription to get it, so it’s not accessible to everyone.
Affordability: 9/10. Free if you have access to the NHS.
Long Acting Reversible Contraception (LARCS):
These fellas include the implant, the injection, the hormonal IUS and the copper coil. Often called ‘fit and forget’ methods, they are praised by healthcare professionals and users for their reliability and longevity: some can last for up to a decade. In theory, this means a drastic reduction in contraception-related waste. But, in practice, they still leave a lot to be desired: they can cause serious physical complications, and since their invention in the 1960s they’ve routinely been forced onto vulnerable and marginalised communities in overtly racist population control efforts.
Sustainability: 7/10. In theory? Great. In practice? Reviews are totally mixed.
Practicality: 6/10. If it works for you, not having to think daily about contraception can be very liberating. -4 points because people tend to find the fitting and removal intrusive and painful. You also need to book, and wait for, appointments if you want to stop using it.
Affordability: 9/10. Free on the NHS. (In contrast, in the USA it could set you back up to $1000).
'No amount of condoms or pill packs will come anywhere close to matching the ecological footprint a new baby would have.'
Conclusion: At the end of the day, the most sustainable option is the one that currently works best for you. No amount of condoms or pill packs will come anywhere close to matching the ecological footprint a new baby would have.
Part 2: Lubrication
I once dated a man who had never tried lube before I came into his life. You know who you are, and you’re welcome. I cannot emphasise the difference the right bottle of lubricant will make to your solo, and partnered, sex life. When it comes to sustainability, however, it can get a little tricky. Here’s a rundown of your options.
Water Based Lubricants:
Think Durex Natural, KY Jelly, most varieties of Sliquid.
Water-based lubes are ideal for beginners. Cheap, easy to find, and condom-safe, they are designed to be multi-purpose (read: they’re safe to use in multiple orifices). They exist in two variants: those that contain glycerine, and those that don’t. Glycerine lubes are a popular choice for those who like to switch from penetrative to oral sex, but the high sugar content can contribute to yeast infections. Unsure what yours is? Do a taste test: if it tastes sweet, it’s glycerine.
Stay well away from anything fragranced or flavoured: that bubblegum-pink strawberry lube has a much better chance of giving you or your partner a UTI than it does of sweetening your sex life.
Sustainability: 5/10. Not particularly bad for the environment, but they tend to dry out quickly requiring frequent applications. That means a lot of empty bottles sent to landfill over the course of your life (it’s worth bearing in mind that people tend to require more artificial lubrication the older they get). One nifty trick with water-based lubes is that a little water or saliva halfway through your play will save you from having to re-apply as often.
Practicality: 8/10. Top marks for condom compatibility and versatility, -2 marks for making people pick between yucky taste and candidiasis.
Affordability: 8/10. Brand name versus generic makes a big difference here.
Silicone Based Lubricants:
Think Pjur, Astroglide, Durex Play and Durex Real Feel:
Silicone based-lubes are popular for 3 reasons: they are hypoallergenic, last ages and they tend to boast a thick consistency: this makes them ideal for sensitive folk or those engaging in anal sex. The downsides? They are only compatible with latex condoms and can damage silicone toys. They’re also notoriously hard to get off once you’re done getting off.
Sustainability: 5/10. They have the highest manufacturing footprint of the lot, but they don’t usually require reapplication so one bottle lasts longer.
Practicality: 6/10. Top marks for comfort and durability, -2 for lack of compatibility with certain condoms and sex toys, further -2 for being impossible to remove from skin and turning subsequent trips to the loo into a game of slip n’ slide.
Affordability: 5/10. Prices vary wildly, but they do tend to be dearer than their water counterparts.
'...plant-based oil lubricants are one of the greenest options of the bunch.'
Oil Based Lubricants
Think YES, Vaseline, and Coconut Oil.
The most popular kind amongst the eco-conscious community, these include high-street offerings and DIY concoctions. As long as you steer clear of their mineral counterparts, plant-based oil lubricants are one of the greenest options of the bunch. They tend to feel extra silky (read: extra sexy), double-up as massage oils, and are incredibly long-lasting. What’s the catch? They dissolve latex condoms. Some also find that they cause irritation, especially to mucus membranes.
Sustainability: 8/10. They’re easy to find in glass or recycled containers and can easily be purchased fair-trade and organic.
Practicality: 5/10. Irritations can lead to infections, and oils are also quick to go rancid. Varieties solid at room temperature will generally require scooping out of a jar or pot, which is not the most hygienic option considering where else your hands have been. We’ve already covered what they do to condoms, and, depending on which variety you choose, the smell will range from chocolate to salad dressing.
Affordability: 5/10. For reasonably priced options try grapeseed and sunflower.
My absolute favourite choice, as long as it’s 100% pure (read the labels carefully: brands tend to sneak things in). Pure Aloe Vera is condom-safe and an excellent soother for ripped, torn, or irritated skin, which makes it an excellent choice for people whose bodies are healing from injuries.
Aloe does contain naturally occurring latex, so always check with your partner before introducing it. Aren’t sure if you are allergic? Use the crease of your elbow to perform a patch test.
Sustainability: 9/10. -1 point because the packaging tends to be plastic, but apart from that it’s pretty much fault-free.
Practicality: 9/10. Point docked because it isn’t suitable for those with latex allergies, and also because some companies add lemon juice as a preservative, which is a one-stop train to sting city.
Affordability: 7/10. More expensive than sunflower oil, much cheaper than coconut.
Apparently, this relic from ancient times is still popular in certain circles, including homeopathic midwifery. I have no intention of trying it, so I can’t give you any pointers.
Sustainability: Let’s not go there.
Practicality: No comment.
Affordability: I guess it depends on whether you go for caged or free-range and organic?
'...if you have a vagina, your overall hydration levels can play a massive role in how much natural lubrication it creates.'
Drinking More Water
I’m not kidding: if you have a vagina, your overall hydration levels can play a massive role in how much natural lubrication it creates. It’s a great place to start, but it’s only one very small piece of the puzzle which also includes your lifestyle, medication, and individual anatomy. But it’s free, and it’s healthy, so you’ve got nothing to lose by trying.
Practicality: 8/10. Points docked for having to wee more frequently.
Conclusion: If you’re worried about sustainability, I recommend starting with Aloe Vera. If you’re sensitive to latex, I would recommend an oil. If you would rather keep things traditional, I’d recommend KY Jelly.
Part 3: Composting the Patriarchy
From capitalising on body insecurities to perpetuating rape culture, the patriarchy has a lot to answer for. Activists and academics have been quick to highlight the parallels between industrialised factory farming and sexual violence, insinuating that agricultural insemination echoes rape. Whilst I appreciate the point trying to be made - and I can’t speak for other survivors - I personally take issue with the comparison because I’m not a big fan of being likened to a dairy cow. My personal skepticism aside, ecofeminism does get some things right.
Climate change and the patriarchy: what exactly is the link?
Ecofeminists argue that gender discrimination and environmental degradation are two sides of the same coin. Like intersectional feminist movements which argue that capitalism, racism, and classism are intimately intertwined, ecofeminism stresses that all forms of oppression are connected because they stem from the same mentality. Put simply, if you’ve got an entitled attitude towards the earth, viewing its ecosystems as yours to mine for capital, you’re more likely to have that same mentality when it comes to fellow humans. After all, it tends to be same set of people who simultaneously sign off on abortion bans whilst lowering the regulations for greenhouse gas emissions. For ecofeminists, the reasoning behind this is simple: patriarchal-capitalist power structures organise the world into binaries, which make up a hierarchical pecking order (think good/evil, man/woman, human/nature, mind/body…).
'...the legacy of misogyny even affects what we know about contraception today.'
As eco-feminists also stress, women and minority groups are also much more at risk of suffering from the social and economic fall-out of climate change and natural disasters. Simultaneously, patriarchal constructs even contribute to the lack of efficacy of contraception, including in covert ways. Abortion bans and evangelical agendas aside, did you know that the majority of women who fall unexpectedly pregnant report feeling pressured by their partner not to use contraception? Furthermore, the legacy of misogyny even affects what we know about contraception today. For instance, the NHS doesn’t always collect data on the side-effects of contraception because it considers women’s experiences too subjective to be worth recording. As a result, manufacturers and regulating bodies only receive information on two categories of contraceptive complications: pregnancy and death.
So what can you do?
If You Have a Penis, Don’t Be A Dick
Before I get into this one, I’d like to preface it by saying that the following advice applies to people without penises too. But the reason I’ve singled penises out in the title is because contraception continues to be approached as the sole responsibility of those with female reproductive organs, especially in heteronormative and cisgender relationships. And I’m here to tell you that it’s not.
The first thing you can do for a partner and the planet is to be responsible. Did you know that one third of adults in the UK have an undiagnosed STI they are not aware about? Or that pre-cum contains enough sperm to successfully impregnate someone, and that the shelf-life of ejaculated sperm is around seven days? Do you see what I’m getting at? If you don’t, let me spell it out for you: if you thought you could rely on pulling out, you’ve got a one-in-three chance of becoming a parent this year. Cute.
'...they can be both emotionally and physically gruelling, no matter how you feel about them ideologically.'
Whilst we’re here, emergency contraception is differentiated from normal contraception for good reason. For example, we don’t actually know how effective the morning-after pill is, because we have no way of measuring how many women would have become pregnant regardless. As for abortions, they can be both emotionally and physically gruelling, no matter how you feel about them ideologically. These are emergency measures, not safety nets.
To summarise, if you do not think that protection and contraception concerns you, then you shouldn’t be having sex.
Sustainability: 10/10. Once you start looking after yourself, and others, it’s hard to imagine going back.
Practicality: 10/10. Practice makes perfect on this one, so you’ll get better at being better every day.
Affordability: 10/10. Much cheaper than child support.
Take Your Time
If you have experienced gender-based violence, or are healing from another kind of traumatic experience (physical, emotional, or both), the most sustainable thing to do will always be to look after yourself. Try to be gentle, try to be kind to yourself, and try to be patient. Have whatever sex life works for you right now, and prioritise people in your life who value your comfort and well-being over finishing.
Sustainability: Honestly? It’s going to be hard sometimes. To make sure you have the energy to keep going, fill up your tank routinely and surround yourself with those who care.
Practicality: Things will get easier. But healing isn’t a linear process, so if it’s two steps forward and one step back, or even no steps at all, you are still doing great.
Affordability: The reality is that between therapy and time off of work, recovery can get expensive. Check out the free resources put forward by GP surgeries and charities in your area. Know that whatever the cost, you are worth it.
Consent is Sexy
I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that date-rape drugs aren’t exactly praised for their sustainable or equitable manufacturing processes. But these more extreme examples aside, assault can be insidious. It’s also always worth checking your own practices: do you remember to ask before touching someone, even if you are in an established relationship? Do you insist or try to change their mind even if they’ve said that they are not in the mood? Be honest with yourself and those around you.
Sustainability: 10/10. Consent is 100% eco-friendly.
Practicality:10/10. Better sex and authentic enjoyment for everyone. Hurrah!
Affordability: 10/10. Asking for consent costs you zero money.
'Radical self-help groups in the seventies were onto something with their anatomy exploration workshops and orgasm coaching.'
Get Up Close and Personal
Radical self-help groups in the seventies were onto something with their anatomy exploration workshops and orgasm coaching. The patriarchy tends to maintain heteronormative, cisgender, and quite Victorian notions of pleasure. An excellent way to challenge that is to spend some time doing a little DIY learning and exploring. It’s a cost-free, and waste-free, way to discover more about what you like, and how you like it.
Practicality: 9/10 (-1 points because more advanced exploring requires some flexibility. My top tip? A hand-held mirror comes in handy.)
Switch Up Your Body Hair Care
There’s no denying that body hair norms are intrinsically linked with both advertising and politicised notions of femininity and masculinity. Regardless, if you’re into shaving, you can minimise the amount of single-use plastic by switching up your razor and shaving cream routine. Consider reusable razors (bonus points if the handle is biodegradable).
Oily skin can get away with using bar soap in lieu of shaving foam, and drier skin types can switch to any kind of plant oil. A great way to avoid in-grown hairs is exfoliating, and my favourite way to do this is to re-purpose the morning’s used coffee grinds into a body scrub. Less abrasive than DIY salt or sugar versions, you’ll be left feeling just as soft and silky. Want more tips? Check out imprint’s feature on sustainable beauty swaps.
Sustainability: 7/10. It’s still more wasteful than letting it all grow freely, but I do it too so I can’t say anything. Extra points lost because it makes you want to stay in the shower longer.
Affordability: 7/10. The upfront costs of these products can be more expensive, but it tends to be worth it in the long run.
Ditch the Douches
There’s big money to be made off of convincing you that you’re naturally too whiffy, too chubby, or too skinny. Letting go of those insecurities is a lifelong process I’m nowhere near achieving, but a good place to start is by ditching the unnecessary personal hygiene products.
For both your dangly front bits and your perky behind bits, simple = sustainable. Get rid of all the products promising to cleanse, purify, sanitise, or deodorize your nether regions. No matter your sex or gender, our anatomy does a rather impressive job of looking after our delicate parts. A daily wash with lukewarm water and unscented bar soap is all you need.
Sustainability: 10/10. Top marks if your soap is locally manufactured with minimal packaging.
Practicality: 9/10. -1 point for the bar of soap sliding out of your hand constantly, and how often you need to drain the soap dish to keep it from looking grubby.
Affordability: 8/10 It’s available everywhere from your local pharmacy and Aldi to organic co-ops and Etsy. Prices vary accordingly.
Well, there you have it, your 101 to thinking about sex and sustainability. I hope you’ve learnt something new and had a bit of a giggle along the way. Before I let you get on with your day, just one more thing: everybody should pee after sex - it’s nature’s best way to prevent against irritation and infection. And yes, that includes after masturbating.
Abi Larner (she/her) is a writer and researcher based in both the UK and France. Passionate about social justice and women’s rights, she’s committed to building a sustainable and fairer future, one small daily step at a time. When she's not writing, you can find her testing recipes, hiking, or grumbling about the patriarchy. Interested in collaborating? You can find her here: abilarner.com.